HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Assessing Tefillah?

by Susan Wall Issue: Taking Measure

Tefillah education, including the actual davening, the range of skills, behaviors and dispositions required to do it well and with intention, and the lessons and instructions that often accompany it, is rarely assessed. This is particularly true for the affective areas. No one is dismissing the difficulty involved; it is far easier to assess the information a student has acquired in a course than it is to assess skills and even harder to measure how our students feel about or make meaning from tefillah. How can we understand a student’s relationship with tefillah, either as a personal spiritual practice or as a means to connect or strengthen one’s commitment to Jewish values and rituals? Just because something is difficult, however, is no reason not to do it.

At a recent symposium on tefillah we ran for day school educators, entitled Aleinu Leshabe’ach, assessment was one area we explored. When we started, there was little agreement as to the need for assessment in tefillah education, particularly in terms of affective goals. Our staff was not looking for consensus in terms of goals, approaches, content, or method. We were looking to build consensus in terms of the need for assessment—a glaring need for the entire field of Jewish education.

It is important to clarify that we are not equating assessment with grades. Assessment is a way of measuring the extent to which we have met our goals. Grades are one type of assessment, and they may be applicable to some aspects of tefillah education, particularly for content and skills. But even in these areas, most schools seem reluctant to give grades, justifiably worrying about the message a letter grade sends. What does it mean to give a student a B- in prayer!?

There are many reasons as to why assess. Some apply more directly to areas of tefillah education than others. We certainly want to make sure that what we choose to teach is actually having an impact. Assessing what individuals have learned allows us, as teachers, to re-teach or modify what we are doing. Assessment also signals to students what we—the school and the teachers, and by extension the parents and community—value. We measure what is important. If we don’t assess, then in the eyes of our students, we are making a strong statement that tefillah education can’t be all that important. This message undermines the centrality of tefillah education.

Tefillah is one area of Judaic studies that our students will almost all encounter throughout their lives, regardless of how they choose to identify as Jews. In spite of this, it is also the area where we see the most pushback from students, the greatest amount of indifference (sometimes even negativity), and the lack of clearly defined, age-appropriate goals and curriculum. Students learn some content and skills, but mastery is far from universal. We would not accept this in other areas of our program.

We need to start with the goals; once our goals are articulated, what we need to assess is clear. Many schools will claim they have goals for tefillah. Unfortunately, sometimes the goals that appear on a website or frame a curriculum are unrealistic, wildly beyond what the school can deliver. Who could argue with wanting to give our students the ability to navigate the siddur, an understanding of the development of prayer, the meaning of the prayers themselves, the ability to successful decode all the prayers, participate and lead services (weekday, Shabbat, etc.), a connection with our Maker, a sense of awe and wonder regarding the world and creation, a way to make prayer personally meaningful and more? The impossibly broad scope and lofty aspirations make the articulation of more realistic goals more difficult. It is no wonder that we shy away from assessment. How could we possibly succeed at all of this—unless tefillah became the sole focus of the Judaics curriculum?

Clearly, a school needs to make decisions regarding its key goals, and therefore, what it is willing to give up. As with Tanakh Standards and Benchmarks, each school needs to tailor its own set of goals based on its mission statement, the time allotted to the subject, the community, grade level, school culture, etc. Once the goals have been carefully selected and articulated, then the appropriate types of assessment can be chosen.

Cognitive and Skill Goals

We know how to assess content and skills in other areas of our curriculum. We know how to measure what students know (in this case it could be any of a number of content goals, such as vocabulary, the structure of the siddur, or the history of tefillah). We have the tools to measure tefillah skills (such as decoding, finding recurring roots, reading Torah, leading services—again depending on the goals of the school). Assessing skills may involve more time, and strong staff organization to make sure it actually gets done. But regardless, if the goals are clear, then choosing how to assess is not difficult.

If, however, we assume that because students sit in services for 30 minutes a day for 9-13 years that they can read, lead or understand what the prayers say without actually assessing, then we have a problem. In an action research project four years ago, we heard from disgruntled 9th grade students that after years of sitting in daily services, they still didn’t know what the prayers meant. This was a case where tefillah education was limited to actual davening, with some explanations by a teacher; to achieve certain cognitive and skill-based goals, tefillah education needs to take place in the classroom as well. It is possible that we actually decide that for certain ages, tefillah education should be primarily teaching in the classroom and not involve davening. There are schools, such as Tanenbaum CHAT in Toronto, that have made that choice.

Assessing the Affective

This is the area of assessment that seems most difficult for educators. Even if we agree that we should assess the affective, how can we measure a student’s passion for prayer, her connection to God, his sense of awe and wonder? On the other hand, how can we afford not to? We want students to feel positively about prayer in the hope that it will encourage them to pray in the future. If they are not feeling positively, we want to know that as well—and do something about it.

Some question the validity of assessment unless it is objective. Why? We need to come to terms with the fact that assessing the affective is more of a subjective than objective undertaking. If we are trying to measure the extent to which our students feel and make meaning out of their learning and their experiences, then who better to judge this progress than the students themselves?

Therefore, why not ask the students? In doing so, we can assess either the group or individuals. To see the bigger picture, we can design questionnaires with statements that students can either agree with or disagree with (on a scale of 1-5) that will show where they are at the beginning, middle and end of the year, or before and after an intervention. Prompts such as “Tefillah is a meaningful time of the day for me” or “I know what most of the prayers mean” can provide important insight into our students’ thinking.

Have students write. They can express themselves through words or pictures in tefillah journals, writing freely or responding to a prompt. They can compose essays after completing a unit, such as one taught by a middle school teacher on the theme of transcendence and imminence. Students could be asked to write about their relationships to God, whether they feel close or far and when. There are thinking exercises—“I used to think/believe X and now I think/believe Y”—that can encourage students to reflect on how their thinking has changed in the area of tefillah after studying a specific prayer, disposition or theme. Students need to know that there is no one correct answer, but that there are nevertheless guidelines (determined by the teacher) to follow when it comes to expressing their own understanding of their tefillah experience.

The arts can play a critical role here. Students can do a photomontage, paint, or write poetry after studying parts of Pesukei Dezimra that focus on awe and wonder regarding creation and our world. These types of activities help students engage creatively, and express thoughts and feelings in non-verbal ways.

Reflection in small groups can be a useful tool. Discussions can help them not only to reflect on their own feelings, but expose them to the thoughts and questions of their peers. Private conversations are also important. Schools could set aside time periodically to check in with a peer (a spiritual havruta) as to where they are in terms of their own tefillah-related beliefs and feelings. Chicagoland Jewish High School has assigned each student a faculty member who engages in a check-in with each student on a monthly basis.

Asking students to express their feelings and beliefs about the experience and content of prayer allows them to grapple with core issues and meaning-making in tefillah education. For students to be willing to open up, there clearly needs to be an atmosphere of trust, with the understanding that prayer is difficult for most people, including the rabbis. Most important, making time for these assessments signals to students that this is a valued part of their school program and a critical resource in their Jewish development.

We, as teachers, can also assess by observing students in tefillah, but we need to be careful lest we make unwarranted assumptions. Certainly the students who immediately sit down after the Kedushah (as though they finished reading the rest of the Amidah silently in 3 seconds) are not so engaged. We sometimes assume incorrectly, however, that a student on the wrong page or one who is silent is not involved in prayer. Students engage the experience of prayer in a variety of ways. Conversely, the student with her finger on the right line on the right page all the time might be the most obedient, not necessarily the one most fully engaged. Also, a seemingly disinterested student provides an opportunity for a conversation. Teachers can approach students who seem disengaged and ask why. Asking and listening is a way of assessing, and signals students that you care about their experience of tefillah and their inner lives.

The question remains as to how would we give feedback and communicate to the students and parents the results of what we have assessed in the affective sphere, short of giving grades. This goal can be achieved by one-on-one discussions with students, comments on written work and in report cards, as well as sharing with the parents at as part of parent-teacher conferences.

As we have tried to illustrate here, the task of assessing all aspects of tefillah education is within our reach. It is not simple, but for those who value this important field, it is a must. We simply cannot pretend that tefillah education is an important part of our curriculum if we continue to ignore assessment.

Dr. Susan Wall is the director of the Pardes Educators Alumni Support Project. susan@pardes.org.il

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Taking Measure

Assessment is a critical function at all levels of day schools. From the classroom to the boardroom, the faculty to the head, every stakeholder and every aspect of school operations stand to benefit from evaluation. Nonetheless, thinking about assessment, and the vehicles for achieving it, are changing in many ways parallel to other aspects of school design. This issue offers reflections about assessment, various and novel ways of achieving it, and discussion of outcomes that can result from successful measurement.

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